Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Business and work (page 1 of 20)

Our ideas about work and rest in the workplace

Why deliberate rest is important for learning and professional development

Yesterday I wrote about William Heneage Ogilvie’s essay “In Praise of Idleness,” in which he makes the case for the importance of “idleness” in the lives of doctors and surgeons:

Most of us have passed through… spells of hard conscientious work and through spells of idleness. In the first we have acquired knowledge; in the second we have built up wisdom. In the first we have been worthy workers. In the second we have made, or started the train that has brought us to, those personal contributions by which we hope to be remembered when we are dead. For the human mind which has been driven hard does its best work when the tension is outspanned and it is allowed to find the natural paths that shape themselves in idle periods….

For many of us the war [ed: both World War I and World War II, in Ogilvie’s case] has provided such a sabbatical break. We have worked hard even in uniform, but for long times we have remained idle. Then it is that we have discovered to our joy that the disconnected visions of our student days are all fiting into a pattern. Figuratively, we have sprung like Archimedes from the bath in which we have been dozing and have shouted “Eureka.”

Today I saw that Jocelyn Glei wrote about the relative benefits of practice versus reflection in learning and the development of skills. She draws on an article about the role of reflection in individual learning:

In this paper, we build on research on the microfoundations of strategy and learning processes to study the individual underpinnings of organizational learning. We argue that once an individual has accumulated a certain amount of experience with a task, the benefit of accumulating additional experience is inferior to the benefit of deliberately articulating and codifying the experience accumulated in the past. We explain the superior performance outcomes associated with such deliberate learning efforts using both a cognitive (improved task understanding) and an emotional (increased self-efficacy) mechanism. We study the proposed framework by means of a mixed-method experimental design that combines the reach and relevance of a field experiment with the precision of two laboratory experiments. Our results support the proposed theoretical framework and bear important implications from both a theoretical and practical viewpoint.

Yet few workplaces are good at supporting this, and as Glei notes, “taking time to reflect is not intuitive.” The article makes the same point:

Our empirical evidence shows that when given a chance to choose between accumulating additional experience with a task versus articulating and codifying the experience they have already accumulated, individuals largely prefer doing to thinking. The results of this study however also suggest that this is a sub-optimal strategy: participants who chose to reflect outperformed those who chose additional experience.

Nonetheless, the benefit of doing so are pretty clear.

This article shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone living in a post-Donald Schön reflective practitioner universe, though the original article’s mix of laboratory tests and fieldwork is pretty elegant, and I quite like how they take on the question of whether people intuit the importance of reflection versus action.

I see a very similar pattern in the discovery of deliberate rest by my subjects in REST: many are hard-charging, ambitious people who only discover the value of deliberately slowing down and taking rest seriously after almost burning out. When you’re chasing a Nobel prize or facing a deadline, it’s not self-evident that you should schedule time for deliberate rest: it looks like a sub-optimal strategy.

Unfortunately, many people who overwork and burn out assume that the key to success is just working harder, not learning how to use rest more strategically. It’s a bit like being a long-term value investor, rather than a day-trader: you have to be willing to accept some ups and downs, some short-term losses and less spectacular returns, on the belief that in the long run you’ll do better. And, one might add, in the belief that you’ll have a long run.

As Glei puts it,

In order to stop doing busywork and start doing our best work, we have to make a point of scheduling in regular time for reflection. We have to celebrate, appreciate, and analyze our past performances, so that we can synthesize what we’ve learned and apply that knowledge to take it up a notch next time.

We do our “most important work when” we let the mind “wander at its own pace round the paths over which it has been rushing”

I recently discovered an essay by the surgeon William Heneage Ogilvie titled “In Praise of Idleness,” which I found while looking for stuff on Bertrand Russell’s essay of the same name. This “Praise of Idleness” appeared in the April 16 1949 issue of the British Medical Journal, and talks about the importance of down-time in the development of physicians:

My thesis is the very simple one that the man who works hard and conscientiously does his most important work when he outspans his mind and allows it to wander at its own pace round the paths over which it has been rushing, and that science is advanced further in a shorter time by the informal chatter of a few like-minded friends over cocktails than by the formal exchange of papers or by any number of congresses.

(As you’d expect from 1949, the piece only speaks about men. But Ogilvie was giving a talk in South Africa, and mentions that it had taken five days via seaplane to get there from London— “I have once again enjoyed the pleasures of idleness, the armchair existence of a five-days flight in a Plymouth flying-boat”, he says— so it really was a different era.)

Anyway, this is the part that jumped out at me:

We can recognize among our students two types. At one extreme we have the overpowering enthusiast who attends all lectures and takes down every word. After a hurried meal he goes to the library and pores over a textbook til the time comes for a ward round, when he listens eagerly to every comment and again enters it in his book. At the other extreme is the footballer who strolls into the lecture a little late and does not really get into his stride as a listener til he has filled and lit his pipe and gets it drawing to his satisfaction. [Ed: The image of the athlete smoking is kind of anachronistic, too!] His notes are sparse, and at rounds he is attentive but not verbose. Yet when it comes to a practical task the second one approaches it with a common-sense outlook; when he is asked a question whose answer is not in the textbook he is able to see through the problem to its essentials and give an answer that may not be the right one but that embodies his personal experience; at examinations he beats his more studious fellow student, in the practicals at any rate, and when he goes into the world he makes a better doctor.

Most of us have passed through both of these phases, through spells of hard conscientious work and through spells of idleness. In the first we have acquired knowledge; in the second we have built up wisdom. In the first we have been worthy workers. In the second we have made, or started the train that has brought us to, those personal contributions by which we hope to be remembered when we are dead. For the human mind which has been driven hard does its best work when the tension is outspanned and it is allowed to find the natural paths that shape themselves in idle periods.

This aside is also kind of striking:

For many of us the war has provided such a sabbatical break. We have worked hard even in uniform, but for long times we have remained idle. Then it is that we have discovered to our joy that the disconnected visions of our student days are all fiting into a pattern. Figuratively, we have sprung like Archimedes from the bath in which we have been dozing and have shouted “Eureka.”

This may sound unlikely, but one of the first studies that established that the restorative properties of time away from work (like on vacation) are determined less by how long you’re away, than by how mentally detached you are from your job and normal life, focused on reservists in the Israeli Defense Forces.

Anyway, the advice remains sound, even in an era of jet travel and women professionals.

The gendered consequences of “Do what you love”

The Atlantic has an article arguing that our belief that you should be passionate about your work has the unintended effect of discouraging women from working if they don’t land in a high-paying, high-reward job. When you already have competing demands from home and children, it’s easier to decide that those things should take priority over employment. From “When ‘Love What You Do’ Pushes Women to Quit:”

the idea that one should feel fervently about one’s work disproportionately affects women, who may already feel that their job is a hardship for their family. For women who don’t inherently see their role in the family as “economic provider,” staying in a job that might not pay much and that they’re not crazy about feels frivolous and selfish.

Perhaps it’s worth stating the obvious: Passions often don’t translate into lucrative careers. Our friends’ passions included acting, singing, sports teams, and yoga—all activities those friends tried to monetize at one time or another, for very low pay. While intellectually most women know they won’t earn much chasing a dream, the reality of trying to balance a low-paying job with raising a family and running a household, especially if your spouse way outearns you, is enough to make many women leave the workplace, particularly those women who don’t feel they must be economically independent.

Digital nomads on the s-curve

Aloha from Kauai!

The digital nomads movement exists in a bit of a legal grey area: people who travel the world, renting houses or hanging out in coworking spaces while freelancing or building their businesses can be considered to be violating their tourist visas, even though they’re essentially bringing work with them. (On the other hand, since they’re generally not hiring locals under the table to work on their businesses, and tend to be more law-abiding and quieter than backpackers who are looking for the next great rave, they also tend not to attract a lot of Official Attention.)

Now, Thailand— which is one of the hobs of the digital nomad movement— is now creating a new visa designed in part for digital nomads:

Thailand’s Smart Visa will only be available to people who work in “S-Curve” industries such as automation and robotics, biotech, and next-gen automotive. The visa will allow holders to work in Thailand without a work permit for four years, compared to one year previously. It’s a one-of-a-kind visa that I hope will be replicated in other countries, especially those looking to expand their talent base and offer companies the best talent from all over the world, instead of hindering them with current archaic visa rules and regulations.

The concept of an s-curve visa— effectively, one that makes it easier for people in new, high-tech industries of the future to come work in your country— is something I’ve not seen before.

I did a few interviews with digital nomads for REST, but I never quite got that section to work. Hwoever, I might go back and do some interviews for the podcast, as they’re managing their time and working hours in some interesting ways.

Rest with Alex Pang, Episode 2: Annie Tevelin and SkinOwl’s 24-Hour Week

More Los Angeles.

This week on my podcast I talk to Annie Tevelin, founder and head of SkinOwl, a Los Angeles-based cosmetics company that works a 24-hour week. SkinOwl makes vegan cosmetics (apparently the Geranium Beauty Drops are quite popular), and Annie started the company after working as a market up artist in Hollywood for Lancôme and studying cosmetic chemistry at UCLA.

When she founded SkinOwl, Annie didn’t want a company that expected the kinds of crazy hours that are typical in Hollywood, and she’s created a workplace in which people are able to quickly fill orders, deal with customers, handle thousand-item B2B orders (the products are available on five continents), all in a four-day week. And those are 6-hour days, not 10-hour days.

This was an especially fun interview, and quite enlightening for me: not only did I learn a few things about working shorter hours, I also learned a little about cosmetics, a world that to be honest was a black box before now. An exquisitely designed, tasteful black box, protected by a friendly yet intimidating sales person.

Rest with Alex Pang, Episode 1: Stephan Aarstol and the five-hour day at Tower Paddleboards

Digital Surfway

So the first episode of my podcast Rest with Alex Pang is now up: it’s an interview with Stephan Aarstol, the founder of pioneering stand-up paddleboard and beach lifestyle company Tower Paddleboards and author of the book The Five-Hour Workday.

Aarstol’s name has come up in a number of other interviews I’ve conduced with founders who have implemented shorter working hours at their companies, and so it made sense to start with him and the Tower Paddleboards story.

You can listen to the episode through the player below, or you can subscribe here (I recommend the latter). Either way, enjoy!

‘The anthropologist’s role is to take things that seem natural and point out that they’re not”

In These Times interviews LSE professor David Graeber, author of the new book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. As he explains it, “A bullshit job is a job that the person doing it believes is pointless, and if the job didn’t exist it would either make no difference whatsoever or it would make the world a better.”

His 2013 article about the phenomenon got a lot of attention, and it looks like the book could be really good.

And Graeber sees explaining the rise and spread of bullshit jobs as the first step toward making work better. As he says:

With bullshit jobs, there is the idea that if you’re not working hard at something you don’t enjoy, then you’re a bad person and don’t deserve public relief. Those deeply rooted beliefs are the strongest weapons capitalism has.

The anthropologist’s role is to take things that seem natural and point out that they’re not, that they’re social constructs and that we could easily do things another way. It’s inherently liberating.

Esports and the rise of training facilities: Even professional gamers need breaks

(via zonetag) Sunday 1:19 pm 11/11/07
not the esports training center in the article

The Washington Post has an article about how esports franchises are starting to build training facilities for teams that offers some surprisingly useful lessons about work-life balance.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, esports is becoming a big thing in the gaming world, and in sports more generally. It took off as a professional, corporate activity in Korea in the early 2000s, and recently has expanded to the U.S. (In fact, some teams playing in the U.S. are from Korea [insert bad immigrants taking our jobs joke here]). If you’r not familiar with it, this video provides a good introduction to the business:

For a long time, many companies would set up “team houses in which players both work and reside,” but as aXiomatic Gaming CEO Bruce Stein explains,

When we formed the idea of a training center, it got [the players] out of training and living in the same environment…. We felt that was a little stifling. It didn’t give them a separation between relaxation and work. And it wasn’t the ideal setup for training with the coaches and the analysts. So, we built a facility.

Given that aXiomatic Gaming’s owners include owners or partners in two basketball teams, two baseball team, and two hockey teams, it’s not a surprise that they wanted to.

Picking up the spare
not really an esports training center

The center is like any other professional sports facility: there are playing fields, a film room for reviewing games, and a kitchen and chef.

What do the players think?

“I think this facility is insane…. Six years ago I was scrimming [practicing] out of like this tiny dinky house in Diamond Bar [in Eastern Los Angeles County], the cheapest possible place you could fit five people.

The coaches like it too.

Overall it fosters a more structured and work-focused environment compared to esports houses.

“Players would just wake up at 10:28 for a 10:30 morning and just crawl out of their beds to it,” assistant coach Jun “Dodo” Kang said, speaking about how it was in the gaming house.

Coach Nu-ri “Cain” Jang said, via translation, that, “Having living and working space in the same place makes it too relaxed for the players. . . . Separating that just helps players focus on being professionals. Like, you’re waking up and actually going to work.”

Kim “Olleh” Joo-sung, one of the Korean players, said the facility helps him stay more balanced.

We hear a lot about the benefits of being able to “blend” work and life, or professional and personal stuff, but there’s a big literature on the psychological and productivity benefits of work-life separation— of having really clear boundaries between work time and your work self, on one hand, and your personal life on the other.

For one thing, having time off is simply psychologically good for you. It gives you time to recover the mental and physical energy you spend at work. This is especially true for people who are in highly stressful jobs, or jobs that explode them to unpredictable, chaotic situations– ER nurses, doctors, and law enforcement are the obvious examples, but people who work in badly-managed offices can also benefit more from clear boundaries. Studies have found that people on zero-hour contracts, who can be ordered into the office on short notice, or are on call, have more trouble detaching from work, and their performance suffers over the long run. Having a physical distinction between work and home– like a training facility rather than a gamer house– goes a long way to enforcing those boundaries.

Predictable breaks and good boundaries between work and home life are good for short-term recovery, and for good long-term career development. There’s a reason people who discover what I call “deep play,” serious hobbies that are as engaging as their work, have more distinguished and longer careers than people who don’t: deep play gives them a degree of balance and control in their lives that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And people who are really ambitious, or get very involved in their work, need the benefits of breaks, and the structure of having them enforced by physical distance and time, even more than average workers. Your highest performers are also the ones most likely to burn out– and really cost your company– if you don’t get them out of the office on a regular basis.

Strong work-life boundaries also make it easier to enforce professional norms and get good performance. Like many people, I like the fact that work allows me to behave differently than I do in my private life; and that’s easier to maintain if those lives are actually separate. I know lots of employers like to talk about “bringing your best self to work,” but that assumes that your “best self” is the same whether you’re in the living room or the courtroom or operating room. One of the reason we find work and hobbies meaningful and rewarding is that those activities let us cultivate different best selves, or exercise parts of our selves in one context that we can’t in another.

The example of gamers moving to a training facility model is significant because these guys are the perfect workers of neoliberal corporate capitalism. They’re young men, unmarried, without families or even house plants. They have no lives, and it’s not clear that they really want them. They live and breathe their work. Most corporate sponsors (or employers) assume that to get the most of these people, you want to encourage those habits, and make it possible for work to overrun life.

But raw passion doesn’t make for world-class performance, and mere obsession can be beat by super-focused work. Combining great training and workplace with stronger work-life boundaries lets people work more intensively, at a higher level of performance– and that’s really what you want. You want them going home, so they can beat the guys who are sleeping under their desks.

Signals, complexity, and knowledge vs data in baseball

Okay, first a caveat: I go to a few Oakland As games every season, but I’m not a baseball fanatic; I married into the game. My wife agreed to move with me to Chicago 20 years ago when I found an apartment within walking distance of Wrigley Field. Proposing to her also helped, but I’m not sure which was the more important factor.

So I’m not a baseball expert by any means, but I still found this article about how “The Rockies Believe They Have an Unbreakable Code,” and more generally how signaling is turning into a point of contention over who makes decisions about pitches, pretty interesting.

Last Sunday, the Washington Nationals broadcast noticed an unusual card sheathed in clear plastic on a wristband that was adorning the left arm of Rockies catcher Chris Iannetta…. The wrist card wasn’t just something the Rockies implemented Sunday. Iannetta has worn the card since the Rockies’ season began in Arizona….

While other teams might have already done something similar, this wristband — or, at least the scope of it — seemed to be unusual in nature. And with the amount of information available in today’s game, when it’s possible to know every batter’s performance against every pitch type in every count, I have wondered if teams would try and get more information to catchers and players on the field.

Mariners’ outfielders are carrying cards in their back pockets to help with positioning this season. In college baseball, the coaches — lacking the trust in their young battery — often call the vast majority of pitches, which can slow things down.

So what’s on the card?

Iannetta said the information is mostly related to controlling the running game, and he explained some of the mechanics of the process. “It’s just a random three-digit number that corresponds to a sign and then we have 10 different cards with random numbers,” Iannetta said. “As soon as they [the MASN broadcast] zoomed in… we heard about it and switched cards immediately. We switched to a different card with a whole new set of numbers. There’s no way to memorize it. There’s a random-number generator spitting out a corresponding number [for the cards], and the coaches have the same cards.”

So the signals are no longer part of a language that each team possesses, or that evolves between specific pitchers and catchers; it’s now more like coded signals in the military.

What’s also interesting about this, though, is that it foreshadows a change in who control the calls, the catcher or the coaches.

In college, the coaches already do so, mainly to keep the game moving. But in major league baseball, there’s a potential competition between two very different kinds of expertise.

On one hand, the catcher possesses a lot of on-the-ground knowledge. They know how confident each hitter is when they come to the plate, can observe how forcefully they’re hitting, whether they’re in the zone or distracted, etc. They also know their pitcher’s performance. “On any given night,” the article says, “the pitcher is going to have a different feel, a different comfort level, with certain pitches that will be unique to that contest.” Put that together, and a good catcher can really shape the play.

On the other hand, coaches now have a staggering amount of data about players, and there’s a temptation to use that to shape the game by allowing coaches to call more of the pitches.

But as the signaling system gets more complex, and you can change it up more often, there’s an opportunity to either use it to deliver more information to catchers, or to displace the knowledge of catchers entirely and rely on big data.

What’s important here is that it’s not that one form of knowledge or expertise is necessarily superior to another; they’re probably best seen as incommensurate, as forms of knowledge that are so different it’s like comparing apples and manta rays. But you can imagine coaches deciding that they want more control over the game, or thinking that big data will let them use less experienced catchers, or simply being super-impressed at the statistics and all the cool things you can do with it. In order words, adopting what looks like a data-intensive and rational system for reasons that actually aren’t that rational.

Time isn’t money: “I can buy anything I want, basically, but I can’t buy time”

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett were interviewed by Charlie Rose (I don’t know the date it aired, sorry), and in this excerpt on YouTube, Gates talks about what he learned from Buffet about protecting his time.

“The fact that he is so careful with his time” was a revelation to the young Gates, and it taught him that “sitting and thinking may be a much higher priority” than responding to the normal demands of CEO life. “You feel like you need to go and see al these people, [but] it’s not a proxy for seriousness that you fill every minute in your schedule.”

“People are going to want your time,” Buffett says. “It’s the only thing you can’t buy. I mean, I can buy anything I want, basically, but I can’t buy time.”

This is a really interesting exchange in my view, because we often think of time as being like money. It’s not just that we work X hours a day, to earn a living. It’s not just that our language jumbles the two together: we say that “time is money,” and that we “spend” time.

What I mean is that we treat time as something to invest, and treat inactivity as like an underperforming asset. Our time can’t be like the money that we’ve stuffed in a mattress: it has to be out in the world, circulating, creating value, working for us. Our calendars are like hotels: the closer you get to being 100% occupied, the better off you are.

So it’s striking that Buffett doesn’t treat his own time that way. Not that he’s unfamiliar with the idea that time is money. Berkshire Hathaway owns (among other things) Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, logistics companies, insurance companies (GEICO, National Indemnity), NetJets, and construction companies. Lots of these are companies where you don’t want stuff just sitting in warehouses or worksheets, idling on the runway or train yard: the more things are moving, the more money they make. You can bet that Buffett understands this.

And yet, he doesn’t treat his own time that way. At one point in the interview, he shows Charlie Rose his appointment book (and it’s a simple paper diary): many of the pages are blank. It’s not that people don’t want Buffett’s time; it’s that Buffett values his time more than they do, because he knows that time isn’t money.

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